Liu Explores How Discrimination and Stress Impact Mental Health in Understudied Populations
Cindy Liu, PhD knows the importance of mental health in present-day society. Her interest in psychology started in the fourth grade when she began distributing surveys and collecting data on how her friends and family thought about themselves and about their world. Decades later, her curiosity and passion for how individuals think and interact within society remains vigorous.
Today, Liu leads the Developmental Risk and Cultural Resilience Laboratory, which studies stress and mental health across diverse populations throughout their lifespans. Her current research revolves around mental health during the perinatal period and the transition to adulthood, as well as mental health disparities among marginalized groups.
“Stressors during these time spans are more likely to result in mental health problems,” said Liu. “Those are the key time points I have really honed in on because I know that’s a vulnerable period for many people. My goal is to more effectively understand these issues so that mental health as a whole can be ultimately improved.”
Finding Her Path and Research Interests
While she was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, Liu’s early encounters with developmental psychology fascinated her and have continued to inform her research throughout her career. In graduate school, she studied clinical psychology and completed her internship at McLean Hospital. She also completed her postdoctoral fellowship there as well as at Boston Children’s Hospital, obtained her license in clinical psychology, and grew as an early career professional. Her proficiency in generating intricate research ideas and securing reliable funding demonstrated her capacity to push knowledge forward in the field of mental health. Equipped with adept skills and ambition, Liu joined the Brigham, firmly dedicated to improving community mental health through her research endeavors. Today, her lab is funded through grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF), as well as through philanthropic gifts.
“I’ve been generously supported by philanthropy, which I have never had the opportunity to explore as a funding source until I came to the Brigham,” she says. “This support has been remarkable and transformative in my ability to develop a research lab. I’ve been so privileged to be at a place where people take my research very seriously, and in many ways see the vision of my work.”
Liu’s innovation recently earned her a competitive R01 grant from the NIH, allowing her to focus on understanding the impacts of discrimination on Asian American adolescent mental health, the responses of Asian American adolescents to racial discrimination, and the agents involved in racial socialization processes (e.g., parents, peers, and social media) among Asian American adolescents.
Recognizing Asian American Discrimination
Asian Americans born to immigrant parents often grow up in-between cultures and are tasked with the mental strain of cultural differences between the home and outside settings, including school or the workplace. These challenges have been compounded by the advent of social media, which has not only produced new avenues for discrimination, but has also been associated with increased mental health issues. In light of such elevated risk factors, Liu’s work in evaluating mental health disparities particularly among Asian American communities represents a leading step in addressing mental well-being.
Anti-Asian discrimination has recently garnered national attention, with reports of hate crimes against Asian Americans skyrocketing since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the pandemic has brought some facets of discrimination against this demographic into the limelight, racism against Asian Americans has a long-standing history in the United States. Since their initial arrival to the U.S., Asian Americans have been subjected to various forms of racial profiling and microaggressions.
Asian American populations have also historically been understudied and overlooked by the research community. From 1992 to 2018, less than 0.2 percent of the entire NIH budget was allocated to research focusing on Asian Americans, Native Hawaiians, and Pacific Islanders (AAPI), who by glaring contrast, make up over 6 percent of the U.S. population.
These issues are personal to Liu, who identifies as Taiwanese American.
“We need a bigger commitment to the Asian American community. My own experience has motivated me to think even more about how we can bring resources and shed more light on this group,” said Liu. She points out that representation matters—in terms of those involved in research as participants, as well as those spearheading studies as investigators. “All of the members of my R01 research team, including consultants, are Asian American, so it is deeply personal for our entire team to receive such funding.”
Her current NIH-funded study evaluates the conversations between Asian American parents and their adolescents about experiences of racial discrimination. Parents and adolescents will be presented with hypothetical scenarios of racial discrimination, prompting them to discuss how they would respond in such situations. As mentioned, Liu conducts this research at a pertinent time, as the pandemic has exacerbated existing concerns and fears about discrimination against Asian Americans. Many Asian Americans have reported being blamed for COVID, viewed as dirty or diseased, and told that they do not belong in America. Liu seeks to understand the impact of these experiences on mental health and their relation to stress among Asian American youth, with the hope of providing guidance for Asian families on protecting against these negative experiences. To Liu, her R01 signals a shift towards greater, much needed research on Asian Americans to promote mental health equity, and is a source for optimism for the future of research—and researchers—in this area.
“The next generation of researchers are very promising,” she said. “In the recent grant, I received more than 300 applications for three research positions. I see great demand in this area, and there is a tremendous desire among future scientists to do this research. I hope one day there will be a center rightly devoted to this type of work.”
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